Tom Hustler

Fast-living society photographer

Thomas William Mostyn Hustler, photographer: born Acklam, Yorkshire 3 October 1934; married 1972 Marilyn Rylands (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1980); died Wokingham, Berkshire 24 July 2006.

More than any other photographer of his generation, Tom Hustler turned his craft into performance art. As he observed, "Being a photographer of people is like being a comedian on stage with a live audience". In his heyday in the Swinging Sixties and later in the more sober Seventies, he was the clowning cameraman who wielded his Rolleiflex like a stage prop and exhorted his sitters to say "Thatcher's knickers" rather than "cheese".

All this made him the darling of contemporary gossip columnists. He was portrayed as the "Old Etonian society photographer and debs' delight" who dated his models and ruled the party scene, and was quoted endlessly on his energetic social life - a typical sample: "I've got a Sunbeam Rapier, white. I bought it from a blonde and immediately set off for the South of France - with a brunette."

Yet behind the drollery and fast living was a thoughtful and genuinely talented photographer. In addition to the pictures of dollies and debs, and the society weddings which were his mainstay, he produced fine studies of actors and entertainers, academics and industry moguls. His photographs of Princess Grace of Monaco, Tommy Steele and Diana Dors are outstanding examples.

He also completed 25 royal commissions despite a potentially career-ending brush with the Duke of Edinburgh during a wedding shoot at St James's Palace. Hustler regarded wedding groups as "the most difficult of all pictures to take" and when the Duke queried his positioning, the harassed photographer snapped, "Sorry Guv'nor, in my groups you stand next to the bride". After an icy pause, the Duke accepted the instruction without further demur, and Hustler lived to record another royal day.

Thomas William Mostyn Hustler was born in 1934 at Acklam Hall, the family's ancestral home in North Yorkshire dating back to King Charles I. The early Hustlers were baronets who made their pile from banking, but the title was lost when the male line petered out, and the family name was twice restored by royal decree. The family motto, "Aut nunquam tentes aut perfice", translates roughly as, "Either do it perfectly or do not attempt it at all".

Acklam Hall was eventually sold off to pay family debts. "My father had a butler who brought him whisky and soda on a silver salver," said Hustler. "He never did a stroke of work in his life. So we were landed gentry who became unlanded."

Raised by nannies, Hustler was sent to Eton at 13, armed with a ten-shilling Brownie box camera. He was considered "wet" by fellow pupils and earned further scorn when he took up pottery; but he showed early commercial acumen by selling his creations to a local shop for £5. In 1952, during his National Service, he became a lieutenant in the Somerset Light Infantry, and faced Communist insurgents in the jungles of Malaya. "It was all a bit like The Virgin Soldiers," he said.

Back in London, he had a short-lived spell as a trainee clerk in the London Stock Exchange, spending his evenings photographing glamorous young débutantes at a shilling a print, which also gave him access to London's best parties. In 1957, at the age of 22, he gave up the day job and became a full-time "formal and informal portraitist".

"I was a very bad schoolboy, a lousy army officer and an even worse stockbroker", he said. "Photography just clicked into shape for me."

Heeding the advice of his fellow Old Etonian Antony Armstrong-Jones, who came from a similar background to his own, he joined the Mayfair studio of the portrait photographer Dorothy Wilding, famous for her photographs of "girls in pearls" which graced the pages of society magazines like Country Life. Wilding was a woman of certainties and when Hustler's mentor, the future Lord Snowdon, remarked that he preferred natural light to studio work, she replied, "Mr Jones, in my studio I can put the sun where I want it."

Hustler began as a darkroom junior, but within a year he had bought Wilding out, using £3,000 from a family trust fund to acquire the studio and considerable archive. He used the studio as a springboard for new business, covering parties and balls. He also moved into society weddings, though he made it a rule never to cover more than one per day - which makes his final tally of 3,000 weddings over some 35 years seem all the more prodigious. Such was his famed rapport with his subjects that he was once voted Bridesmaid of the Year.

His next big break came in 1960 with the engagement of Armstrong-Jones to Princess Margaret. "I photographed Princess Anne and Prince Charles because Tony could not do them for obvious reasons," he said. "The press were caught short of anything to write about him, so they wrote me up (quite inaccurately) as the 'next Tony'. However it put my name in the papers and helped my career."

Ever the entrepreneur, Hustler capitalised on his fame by opening his own club restaurant, Fanny's Bistro, which he styled as "London's first bistrothèque". The double entendre was quite deliberate, and Hustler was fond of introducing himself as the "eponymous Fanny". One invitation asked guests to "come in naughty attire". In time the studied loucheness faded, with one commentator noting sadly that "some gentlemen are even bringing their wives"; Fanny succumbed to the curse of respectability.

Respectability, at least of the marital kind, finally overtook Hustler himself and in 1972 he married Marilyn Richards. The "eternal most eligible bachelor" who once said, "I photograph so many women, and see them in close-up, that I find the idea of settling on just one very hard" was finally snared. Their wedding at Marylebone Register Office was photographed by a phalanx of Hustler's rivals.

When the marriage ended in 1980, Hustler found himself looking after their two young children, Georgina and William, and though he continued working on assignments and commissions until the late 1990s, he settled into the self-styled role of "one-parent oldie".

He turned the family home in Reading into an ad hoc academy, offering one-day wedding seminars at £15 a time and also riotous courses on glamour photography. He completed two instruction manuals, including Tom Hustler on Photography (1963), which he had planned on calling "Photography for Imbeciles" until the publishers decreed otherwise.

Hustler could be dismissive about his own considerable talents. Sounding - perhaps intentionally - like a hitman, he said, "I shoot people for pleasure and profit." But, maybe with an eye on posterity, he also reminded audiences that the Sistine Chapel was conceived as an "ad for God", paid for by the Pope - yet it still rated as art.

His final years were dogged by ill-health. Confined to a home, he made a last bid for freedom with a fellow resident called Daisy, who suffered from short-term memory loss. After disabling the home's alarm system, the pair set off, with the former debs' delight hobbling down the gravel drive on a frame. Their aim, as he repeatedly reminded the forgetful Daisy, was to buy ginger nuts from the local shop. The goals might have changed, but the ambition remained undimmed.

Roger Eldridge

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